In the theory class of the first semester of my first year as a graduate student, I was in a group with two other MA hopefuls, and we wrote a paper on how we would study the topic of how the media influences adolescents’ and young adults’ sexual behaviors. Always the clever one, I termed this paper “The Birds and the Bees” as we focused on the media as one of the socialization institutions that inform how young people think about and feel about sex.
For the paper, we had to conduct a review of the research on the topic and consider the variety of theoretical perspectives used to understand the phenomena under consideration. So we dutifully dived into the library’s databases and found people discussing sex and the media from the lens of cultivation theory, social learning theory, priming theory, excitation transfer theory, and the uses and gratifications perspective. Based on what we saw as the strengths and weaknesses of these various approaches, and the studies that result from or informed them, we developed our own theoretical framework to guide a potential study.
We called it “cultivated learning theory”, and depicted it with this rather crude illustration of how the variables related to one another (I even trademarked it back in 2003).
The basic idea behind this theory is that it allows for the ability for one socializing agent to “out-influence” the other socializing agents, thus having a measurable impact on behavior.
What follows are excerpts from the class paper to explain why we ended up with cultivated learning theory. The full paper can be found here as a .pdf.
As we are interested in ascertaining whether or not exposure to sex, be it implicit or explicit, can impact a young person’s actual sexual behavior, we necessarily have to narrow down our focus from what has been done in the past. We will not rely on the tenets of uses and gratifications. Uses and gratifications could help us understand why some people seek out and use sexual media, but this is in essence the opposite direction of causality than the one we are interested in studying. Excitation transfer theory is better at explaining short term arousal effects. While in the direction we are interested in, the specificity of the situation it requires is too narrow for our interests. While priming could help us understand the cognitive process linking viewing to behavior, including it into out theoretical framework could be at the expense of considering more comprehensive alternatives. Thus, we will not specify cognitive processes right now. This leaves us to focus on cultivation theory and social learning theory.
Cultivation theory postulates a mainstream media’s ability to cultivate certain perceptions and attitudes about societal norms. The theory can tell us about how cumulative exposure could cause the fostering of certain cognitions. Social learning theory postulates a person’s ability to learn a behavior from a rewarded positive model seeing the model perform this behavior after several attempts. This theory can tell us about how one can learn a behavior from the media. However, there are some behaviors that have taboos associated with them. Sexual behavior may be one such behavior. If all other socializing agents are saying “Don’t have sex before marriage”, then will watching two or three portrayals of men and women enjoying sex be enough to overcome the stigma associated with it? If this is the case, then social learning theory may not be enough to explain media’s impact on teenage sexual behavior.
Thus, we are constructing a theory that combines cultivation and social learning, which we dub cultivated learning theory. In cases where behaviors have taboos associated with them, such that these behaviors would be construed as inappropriate, individuals may require added encouragement to enact these behaviors. As socializing agents can influence an individual’s perception of social and cultural norms, repeated exposure to any one agent, which advocates a perception of reality in some way different from true reality, may cause a skewed perception of social and cultural reality. Cultivation theory predicts that mass media, in the form of television, can have this impact. Thus, repeated exposure to this alternate perception can foster the internalization of these skewed norms as the “truth of reality”, so that when an individual makes a behavioral decision, it will be based on these skewed norms and no longer restricted by the actual societal and cultural taboos. In this way, repeated exposure to an altered perception of social and cultural reality can lead to the enactment of behaviors that are sponsored by the socializing agent(s) that fostered those perceptions. In addition, there may be some personal characteristics of the individual that can influence this relationship between perceptions and behavior, either strengthening or weakening the influence of the socializing agents.
What this boils down to is that any of the five agents can exert enough influence to have an individual perform behaviors based on their perception of reality. The Catholic Church can have families severely discipline their children. A friend can apply pressure to try drugs. The media can show so much sex without repercussions that a teenager thinks it is the thing to do in a romantic relationship. But there could be enough influence from a different agent so as to mitigate this effect. Thus, the theory accounts for not only the influence of any one agent, or perhaps agents working in conjunction, but also how any agents may interact with each other. In addition, the personality of the individual is not discounted, but seen as a filter through which the cultivating influences flow. So, if a person is high on sensation-seeking, the influence of repeated exposure to the media may heighten the result in comparison to someone lower in sensation-seeking. This is where the lack of specifying cognitive processes comes into play, because any process could differ from individual to individual.
For the purpose of investigating the limitations and problems we discussed about past studies, cultivated learning theory would predict that cumulative exposure to televised portrayals of positive depictions of sex could in time cause adolescents and young adults to engage in these same behaviors, if there is no influence from another socializing agent that exerts as powerful a counter-force. Indeed, a study done by Jensen, de Gaston & Weed (1994) noted that teenagers perceive great pressure from the media and other socializing agents to engage in sex, but some also report receiving contradictory encouragement to abstain from their parents. Cultivated learning theory would predict that those receiving no counter-encouragement from their parents would be the teenagers most likely to engage in sex, and those who receive the most counter-encouragement, despite their media consumption, would be the least likely to engage in sexual activity.
Cultivated learning theory did not go beyond that particular class. I toyed with how to explain it better, but I never used it to frame any research, and my two group-mates got their MAs and went back into the professional world.
Maybe someday I will return to this theory. It needs refinement, particularly through empirical studies, in order for it to become something more than a thought experiment. Because while it does make theoretical sense, so, too, did flat-earth and geocentric convictions at one time or another.